Propaganda, Irrationality, and Group Agency

In Michael Hannon & Jeroen De Ridder (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Political Epistemology. Routledge. pp. 226-235 (2021)
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I argue that propaganda does not characteristically interfere with individual rationality, but instead with group agency. Whereas it is often claimed that propaganda involves some sort of incitement to irrationality, I show that this is neither necessary nor sufficient for a case’s being one or propaganda. For instance, some propaganda constitutes evidence of the speaker’s power, or else of the risk and futility of opposing them, and there is nothing irrational about taking such evidence seriously. I outline an alternative account of propaganda inspired by Hannah Arendt, on which propaganda characteristically creates or destroys group agency. One aspiring to control the public should have an interest in both creating and suppressing group agency, I argue, both because groups have capacities that individuals don’t, and because participation in group action can have a transformative effect upon the individual. Finally, I suggest that my characterization of propaganda suggests a vision of resistance to propaganda quite unlike the one that emerges from irrational-belief accounts, on which propaganda cannot be resisted by oneself.

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Megan Hyska
Northwestern University


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